Martha Griffiths. Washington, D.C., Aug. 12, 1970. Photograph by Warren K. Leffler.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-U9-23069-20).


 

Griffiths, Martha (29 Jan. 1912-22 Apr. 2003), U.S. congresswoman, lawyer, and women's rights advocate, was born in Pierce City, Missouri, to Nell Sullinger Wright and Charles Elbridge Wright, a mail carrier. Her mother took in boarders so that Martha could attend the University of Missouri at Columbia, where she majored in political science and met her future husband, Hicks G. Griffiths, on the debating team. They married in 1933, eloping before she earned her A.B. in 1934; they had no children. Both Griffiths earned law degrees from the University of Michigan in 1940, and during World War II she negotiated contracts for the U.S. Army's Ordnance Department in the Detroit area. After the war the Griffiths established a law practice with G. Mennen "Soapy" Williams, and the three helped build a grassroots movement that liberalized and revitalized the Democratic Party in Michigan

Encouraged by her husband to enter politics, Griffiths lost her first bid for a seat in Michigan's lower house in 1946 but ran successfully two years later, as Williams captured the governorship. She served two terms in the Michigan legislature, where she sponsored fair employment practices legislation and reform in the unemployment compensation program. According to the Detroit News, "She pierced many a legislative hide then with sharp-tongued logic" (George, p. 17). After Griffiths ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1952, Williams appointed her to the Recorder's Court in Detroit; she was the first woman to sit on this court who judged criminal cases. In 1954 Griffiths won election to the House, replacing the Republican who had defeated her two years earlier. She then won nine more elections to Congress, driving a house trailer--her "town hall on wheels"--around the formerly Republican district, which comprised a piece of northwest Detroit and several suburbs. During Griffiths's twenty years in Congress, her husband maintained their law practice at home, encouraging her from afar and sharing weekends at their farm north of Detroit.

The forty-eight-year-old Griffiths entered Congress as a self-described liberal Democrat, though her independence contributed to an uneasy relationship with Michigan's labor hierarchy throughout her career. One of the few congresswomen with legal training, Griffiths exerted most of her influence from the Ways and Means Committee and the Joint Economic Committee and was the first woman to serve on either one. Widely respected for her diligence, preparedness, and keen intelligence, she was also known for speaking bluntly, sometimes with piercing sarcasm. Griffiths was a strong advocate of free trade, food stamps, low-income housing, and tax and Social Security reform to reduce burdens on lower-income families; in 1970 she cosponsored a single-payer national health insurance bill with Senator Edward M. Kennedy. Griffiths gradually became a critic of federal antipoverty policy, viewing social provision as a chaotic mass of programs scattered through various agencies and unfair to full-time wage earners whose families often subsisted on less than individuals receiving government benefits. As chair of a Joint Economic Committee subcommittee, she led a detailed, comprehensive three-year study on welfare and ultimately advocated replacing the major programs, such as aid to families with dependent children and food stamps, with a system of cash grants and tax credits.

Griffiths made her greatest mark on the battle against sex discrimination, heading the effort for feminist policy making in the 1960s. Early in her congressional years, she sponsored equal pay legislation and an equal rights amendment to the Constitution. When Congress considered the Civil Rights Act of 1964, she led the fight to include sex discrimination in Title VII, the section that covered employment, breaking with liberal colleagues who feared that including women would jeopardize securing rights for African Americans. Once the ban against employment discrimination was enacted, Griffiths worked with an emerging feminist movement to compel the law's enforcement agency, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, to take sex discrimination seriously. Her scorching speech in Congress in June 1966 castigated the agency's "contempt for women's rights" and helped galvanize the women who months later founded the National Organization for Women (NOW). As part of her campaign for equity in employment, Griffiths once grilled an airline executive who insisted that flight attendants must be young, single, and attractive, demanding to know if he was running "an airline or a whorehouse" (George, p. 155).

Griffiths leveraged her position on the Ways and Means Committee to address the multiple ways that women were treated unfairly in tax codes and Social Security, discrimination rooted in assumptions that men were breadwinners and women homemakers. Urged on by women who wrote to her from all corners of the nation, she persistently educated her male colleagues to recognize that work outside the home had become the norm for married women. Though not eradicating all the sex bias embedded in Social Security, Griffiths won legislation eliminating some of the most blatant discrimination, reforms that often carried over to private pensions and to Congress itself. In the summer of 1973 she used her position as chair of the Fiscal Policy Subcommittee of the Joint Economic Committee to sponsor hearings on the economic status of women and draw further attention to sex discrimination.

Griffiths looked to an equal rights amendment (ERA) to the Constitution to end the host of inequities that women faced under the law, but that amendment had been bottled up for years in the House Judiciary Committee, whose chairman, Emanuel Celler, would not even hold hearings on the measure. Defying high odds against the success of such a maneuver, in 1970 Griffiths filed a discharge petition and then used her own political capital to persuade fellow representatives to sign, often personally walking them up to the table where the petition lay. Simultaneously she worked with women's organizations such as the National Federation of Business and Professional Women (now the Business and Professional Women's Foundation) to have their members lobby their representatives on behalf of the ERA. Within two months she had rounded up more than the 218 votes needed to bring the measure to the floor, where it passed by a huge majority. Once the amendment passed both houses in 1972, Griffiths traveled the country to urge ratification. Despite its ultimate failure, she believed that the ERA had created "a moral climate for reform."

Griffiths did not confine her women's rights advocacy to Congress. She encouraged the formation of the Women's Equity Action League in 1968 and served on its advisory board as well as NOW's. In 1971 Griffiths helped form Women United, a Washington, D.C., group dedicated specifically to lobbying for the ERA. In 1977 President Jimmy Carter appointed her chair of the Committee on the Homemaker for the National Commission on the Observation of International Women's Year from which she oversaw a state-by-state analysis of homemakers' legal status.

In 1974 Griffiths left the House to spend more time with her husband. She continued to be active in the Democratic Party, in promoting the ERA and other feminist causes, and as a member of several corporate boards. In 1982 she ran successfully for lieutenant governor of Michigan on a ticket with James J. Blanchard. The two were reelected in 1986, but in 1990, when Griffiths was seventy-eight years old, Blanchard dropped her from the ticket. She did not go quietly, and outrage from some who perceived age and sex discrimination may have cost Blanchard reelection. Griffiths returned to law practice and died of pneumonia in Armada, Michigan.

 



Bibliography

Papers for the years 1956-1976 are at the Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Oral histories are in the G. Mennen Williams and Nancy Quirk Williams Oral History Project, Bentley Historical Library, and U.S. Association of Former Members of Congress, Manuscript Room, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. The only biography is Emily George, Martha W. Griffiths (1982). See also "Martha Wright Griffiths, 1912-2003," in Women in Congress, 1917-2006 (2006). An obituary appeared in the New York Times, 25 Apr. 2003.



Susan M. Hartmann




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Susan M. Hartmann. "Griffiths, Martha";
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American National Biography Online Feb. 2000.
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